Jeff Warner PHOTOGRAPHIC, Golden, Colorado, USA

Monday, October 10, 2011

10/10/11: Hello India!

So, where to start with our first day in India? We awoke early, as usual, to watch the port come into view, and as I’d read, as soon as we stepped onto the outer deck, I could smell it. India. Certainly not a bad smell, not ocean, not port, just a fragrant, pungent sort of foreign smell; not sure what.

After the typical gyrations of getting alongside the berth, face-to-face customs inspections, etc. we had a bit less than two hours until our city orientation started, so we decided to get off the ship and walk around a bit. As with Morocco and Ghana, Chennai’s is a very busy industrial port and we are not allowed to walk around this one. We boarded the shuttle for the <1 km drive to the port gate, which took about 4 minutes. Wow, is it hot and humid! We sweatily proceeded to sit and wait while two buses ahead of us got cleared by… well, I’m not even sure if it was Customs or the military (they were dressed the part). They checked each of our passports AND our customs declarations form (which was required to be on our person), then gave us a number from their spreadsheet, put a little check by our names. About a 20 minute process, all in all.

We were released outside the gate to a mob of auto-rickshaw drivers, the little three-wheeled, lawnmower motor-driven things that are everywhere. Chokingly everywhere! A near fight amongst the drivers ensued, and the four of us scurried around it, though several latched onto our trail, wanting to give us a ride to I’m not sure where. As soon as one of them became sure we weren’t going to buy a trip somewhere, they’d be replaced by another, and another, and another. Walking next to us, driving next to us (the wrong way, no doubt), it didn’t matter, they were going to snag a fare, one way or the other. We didn’t know where we were going, we just wanted to walk, and did so as best we could toward the direction that seemed ‘away’ from where we started, trail of sullen auto-rickshaw drivers scattered behind us.

After maybe 200 meters we seemed to successfully break away from the ‘auto’ (as they call them here) chaos behind us, only to have the Indian-version of Mohammed join us, insisting on giving us a walking tour. For all I know he was an auto-rickshaw driver that decided to take it to the next level, shucking his ride in deference to capturing some of our money however he needed to do it. I have no idea what his deal was, but about then we ran into a gaggle of SAS students (surrounded by auto drivers), one of whom longingly asked us what we were doing, appearing to hope we had a plan. As the view ahead didn’t look any more compelling, we reversed course, and for some reason the eight-or-so college students briefly joined us. Looking for food, we ducked into the Seafarer’s Hotel; at least that’s what we thought it was at first. After walking around the courtyard, seeing what looked like odd, seedy hotel rooms (perhaps hostel rooms is more apt), it became evident that we might not choose to eat in such a place anyway, and we left. Re-reading the sort of fancy-looking sign, it actually said something like Seafarer’s Welfare Center. I’m not sure I want to know exactly what types of needs are met there, but I became certain that it wouldn’t have met ours.

We had spent about 40 minutes getting a few hundred meters, and we aborted our plan of ‘finding lunch’ (hah! sounds so easy, doesn’t it?) and headed back toward the shuttle pickup to return to the ship to grab a bite on the ship before our city tour. We then had the pleasure of repeating the whole process of checking our passports and customs forms again, 10-ish minutes worth, followed by the 4-minute shuttle ride.

All kinds of fun auto-rickshaw paintjobs.

Can you guess what kind of car this is?

I have no idea why this fork is (still?) wrapped in bubble wrap.

Oh yeah, did I tell you it was hot? Wicked-sticky, sweaty-hot! Just over 90-degrees F, and probably a similar relative humidity. This landlubber isn’t used to such maritime climates! Our city tour started with Ft. St. George, a former British installation of grand proportion, formerly surrounded by a series of moats. As we entered security, our female Indian tour guide was hustled behind a curtain for some sort of ‘in-depth’ search, while thirty of us Westerners just strolled in, no bags checked, no questions, nothing. Weird.

We re-boarded the bus and saw Marina Beach, supposedly one of the longest beaches in the world, then continued to St. Thomas Cathedral, where the apostle Thomas is buried. Did you know one of the 12 Apostles was buried in India? I didn’t. We finished the tour by entering a traditional Hindu temple after doffing our shoes at a streetside shoe-check stand. The temple was an open-air complex of different small buildings and areas for prayer to different Hindu gods. The main temple was exactly 108 feet high (apparently a ‘lucky’ number in the culture), and was adorned on all four sides by ornately-painted figures important in the Hindu religion.

Please do not use us.

Praying to the oscillating god on the wall.

That's a saree hanging from the roof, all 12 meters of it.

The gopuram (tower) of the Kapaleeshwarar Temple in Chennai, 'typical' of Hindu temples.

Rather than go back to the ship, the four of us and Phillip (a son of one of the professors) left the tour in search of food. This would not be the last of the ongoing tests of our long-term memories, trying to imprint the fact that we should not eat with--nor give or receive items with--our left hands, as is customary in so much of the non-western world. We went to the restaurant suggested by our tour guide, and although in between meal hours, we tried a nice selection of traditional south Indian appetizers. It was excellent, but for some reason we drew a crowd of interested wait staff, who stood five feet off our bow, just watching us eat. I felt a bit like a zoo animal being watched by curious handlers; perhaps it was our rather unaccustomed eating habits (left hands often rapidly darting beneath the table in embarrassment)? Perhaps they had a bet with how many times our left hands would creep up, unnoticed, toward our food or, gasp, our mouths? They did occasionally laugh or smile, though I preferred not to wonder why.

We paid the rather paltry bill of maybe $8 for the five of us, and as we got up to leave, we asked a question of an Indian lady at the table next to us, who had sat down with two Brits. Turns out she was the mother of our female tour guide from merely an hour ago! Weird. We walked the now-dark street, which was lined by sidewalk stands lit by fluorescent light bulbs hanging from above. We bought some really, really inexpensive trinkets in what appeared to be a ‘five-and-dime’ store, then walked around a bit before trying to catch an ‘auto’ back to the ship.

Ah, our first experience in the auto, and it’s nighttime. Wow, what an experience! With Phillip with us, we split into two autos, and tried to communicate the fact that we were absolutely to remain together, and told Heidi and Reade’s driver that they did NOT have the money to pay, we did. One hoped that would give the driver adequate motivation not to lose us, though it probably, in fact, increased the roller-coaster nature of the ride. Cars, scooters, autos, bikes, pedestrians EVERYWHERE! Every different direction, only marginal attention to lanes when unimpeded by a center barrier, through some little alleys, zipping left and right. The traffic is an interesting mélange of following traffic rules like lights, combined with the ‘path of least resistance’ approach to lanes. Lanes really don’t exist despite the government’s outlay of cash for paint, and people take the smallest of gaps as invitations to squeeze in and move up a car length or two. At one point a guy riding a motorcycle stuck the grip into our auto, and came about ¾” from hooking it on our doorway, yanking it out at the last split second, avoiding what surely would have been a ‘Lance-versus-musette’ slapdown, plus an additional rollover by various traffic behind. Now add the fact that some people are riding bicycles with no lights or reflectors, at night, and you can start to comprehend the chaos.

After dumping us at Gate 5 instead of Gate 7 where we needed to be (unbeknownst to us), we gave the drivers another 50 rupees (at $1=50r) to get us the 2km back to the proper gate. Well worth it.

We survived our first encounter with the auto-rickshaw! 

1 comment:

  1. It seems like you have bad traffic problems wherever you go!


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